The lieutenant governor's race is drawing special interest from the special interestsBy CLAY ROBISON
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN — Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has raised more than $3.4 million this year against two underfunded re-election opponents given little chance of unseating him on Nov. 7.
Add that to the $3 million he collected during the final six months of 2005, and you get an idea of the value that special-interest donors place on what many consider the most powerful office in state government.
The lieutenant governor's main job is to preside over the state Senate, making the officeholder a major player in the life or death of legislation. And if he also is eyeing a future race for governor, as Dewhurst is, the political stakes can get even higher.
Dewhurst's challengers are Democrat Maria Luisa Alvarado of San Antonio, who had only $391 in her campaign account at last report, and Libertarian Judy Baker of Houston, who was tapped out.
The multimillionaire Republican incumbent has spent most of what he has received. He had $905,000 left on Sept. 28 but may have raised more since.
Much of it has gone for such predictable political expenses as consultants, travel, campaign staffers and advertising — including about $4 million on television ads for the campaign's closing weeks.
Dewhurst also has been paying interest on and reducing the debt he incurred winning his first race for lieutenant governor against Democrat John Sharp in 2002.
Dewhurst ended that race $13 million in debt, including bank loans and money he had lent his own campaign. He had reduced the debt to about $5.2 million by the end of last year, and it is now down to about $4.7 million.
"We're always a little surprised at the amount of money spent by statewide candidates who have no viable opposition," said Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice, a group critical of the role that large donations play in state political races.
The money, Wheat pointed out, does more than help Dewhurst buy down his debt and assure his re-election.
It also helps him improve his name identification for a future race, perhaps a gubernatorial campaign.
"There are a lot of Texans out there who, if asked, could not tell you the name of the lieutenant governor," he said, adding that Dewhurst was now "in debt to special interests."
Texas law doesn't limit political donations from individuals and political action committees, except in judicial races.
"It's important to our success for the next four years that people know who I am and appreciate our accomplishments and are favorable to me," Dewhurst said. "The future will take care of itself."
He believes the Senate has had "great success" during his term, dealing in a bipartisan manner with budget shortfalls, school finance, civil justice changes and other difficult issues.
During his first year as lieutenant governor, the Senate also exploded in a bitter, partisan fight over a Republican-backed congressional redistricting map. Eleven Democratic senators even fled to Albuquerque, N.M., to shut down work for one month.
Dewhurst has spent much time since then mending fences and has been largely successful.
The lieutenant governor is emphasizing children's issues in his re-election campaign.
He has proposed the death penalty for repeat sex offenders who attack children younger than 14, tougher penalties for online solicitation of minors, steroid testing for high school athletes and a requirement that all public schools have automated external defibrillators on campus.
The latter proposal followed the recent deaths of four Houston-area student athletes during or just after physical drills.
Alvarado, a retired Texas Air National Guard master sergeant, has held research positions on social and health projects at several institutions, including the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, UT-San Antonio, UT-Austin, the University of Chicago and the University of Memphis.
Running what she calls a "One Texas for All" campaign, she said it is clear that "current (state) leaders have not yet grasped the gravity and depth of the needs of the people of Texas."
She has called for raising teacher pay in Texas to a level "equal to the best-paid teachers in the country" and wants to expand healthcare for low-income and underserved Texans.
Border security, she said, is a federal responsibility, and if members of Congress can't accomplish that task, "they must be removed and replaced with stronger advocates."
Like other Libertarians, Baker, a retired utility information systems specialist, believes the role of government should be reduced. But she said the Legislature didn't go far enough in cutting school property tax rates last spring.
If lawmakers were really serious about lowering property taxes, they also would have imposed tighter limits on appraisal increases, she added.
"I think we need to watch how we spend our (education) money better. We're not spending our money the right way," Baker said.
She also supports a tax-paid voucher program to give parents a choice between public and private schools. She said it needed to include "strict restrictions" to assure that state government didn't impose its will on private schools.